Creative resilience in the face of self-doubt

I’ve wanted to restart this blog with a specific focus on creative resilience. There are so many things that can stop us – a world pandemic, climate crisis, tiredness, overwork, confusion, conflicting demands and that old perennial self-doubt.

To endeavour in the face of all those mega obstacles you need to have a reason. Once you have a reason you need to believe 1) that your work will fulfil that reason and 2) you can actually produce something half-decent that other people will want to read.

In a cruel twist of self-fulfilling prophecy if you falter at any of the above steps and succumb to self-doubt you begin to lose impetus to begin, if you begin your productivity disappears, nothing you write seems good enough and voila! Your greatest fears have been realised.

So let’s start with a reason.

Perhaps you’d like to take out your phone and open up the notes function, perhaps you’d like to tab to a blank page or open up that very special notebook someone gave your for your birthday and you’ve been saving up to now.

Now write down your reason. Why do you want to create? What drives you to write? What difference do you want your writing/artwork to make? What would be the best thing that someone could say about your work? Write all the answers down.

Next: What fascinates you? What gives you most satisfaction about a piece of work you are creating? What are the little highs along the way? What would you miss most if you could not do it again?

When you look over those answers you have your reason. Next week I will talk about looking at your range, what scope and reach is enough to satisfy you, what you can do to fulfill these aims.

You have a reason. Try to distil it in one or two sentences. Write it down and pin it up where you right or commit it to memory but every so often change the phrasing so that it doesn’t wear out.

Right now my reason might be: I want to write to make the ordinary glorious, to reach and console others in our common human experience.

You have your reason, it’s wonderful, it probably makes sense, now you know why you spend hours wrestling with words (or paint or whatever your medium) behind closed doors, for years and years with no recognition maybe in an endless groundhog pursuit that may possibly qualify as mad.

Then you sit down to write. You do your best to try to convey an idea, a setting, a character, a pure feeling adequately and I say adequately as it often does not feel more successful than that. We begin to question our subject matter or our ability in comparison to other writers whose work we enjoy and who are successfully published. Why can’t we be as (insert adjective) as they are?

First we must accept who we are and where we came from   

Each person is a conglomeration of circumstance, particular genetic and developed competencies and intelligences, particular ways of looking at the world. A person’s background and experience leads to a particular linguistic range and ideology, particular preferences, favoured words and themes. Some of these words or ways of seeing may seem inspired or some sort of genius or out of reach by dint of our different experiences. Take the rich Indian landscape of colour and spice versus the equally apt Scandinavian noir. Take the World War Novel or family drama. Each has its riches. What do you know inside out? Or what does your fascination drive you to know well? We might look at books on a grand scale -so ambitious and successful that we stand haggard in the face of them and believe we can never achieve such brilliance. There are moments when we see others render the seemingly normal and mundane in a searing and luminescent manner that takes our breath away. Getting the mundane right seems an even greater accomplishment.

Take time to recognise where you came from, what your memories are, how you grew up, the language you know. Accept that as your legacy and lexicon. What you see as your limitation can be a rich store from which you draw. Go deeper, mine your memories, recall local stories, interrogate your everyday and your past for the fine details. These may be details that others can identify with and love or specific moments that will give your work its originality and colour.

Believe in the jewels and record them

As you write you will churn up mud, you will make mistakes, you will write a hundred ordinary words and then, suddenly something will come up. Bursting out into the light, beyond our conscious plan or knowledge something appears like a cave strewn jewel or a spring bulb out of dark and cold soil. In that moment a true union of intention and completion occurs. We are delighted, we read the phrase over and over. In the longer term we struggle to pull an entire novel together and eventually succeed. Yet we forget, time and time over what we have achieved. In psychology terms it is the cruelty of the recency effect (when writing we are more often closest to frustration than to celebration) and how we are wired neurologically for evolutionary advantage to see what is wrong. Take time to note the lovely phrases, the commendations, the compliments, publications or shortlists or just the internal satisfaction of having a phrase or a character do what it, he, she, they was supposed to do. Yes, write these successes down and allow yourself to enjoy the intrinsic motivation of doing a good job at something you (yes, see Reason) love. Have a long list on your noticeboard or at the back of a notebook noting every success. Revel in it every once in a while.

Business-like ways to eliminate self-doubt

Daily aims

After the poetic be practical. Beyond meaning and reason and lovely words you can also mechanically and practically work to eliminate self-doubt. Make a plan, create daily aims, put them in a table or spreadsheet and tick them off, include mitigating factors – a sick child, an unexpected errand.

Record and reward increasing wordcount or the solving of difficult problems

Wordcount isn’t always a true indicator of the worth of your work but its an easy way to feel that you’re succeeding. If you’re wrestling with a problem again get out your work notebook and note what you’ve been working on and how you’ve moved it on. At the very least logging progress on a daily basis will help you see that you are getting somewhere.

Share and submit

This is a tricky one. If you submit and are constantly rejected you may feel worse than ever but even sharing and getting encouraging feedback from your writing group is a way of feeling that you are truly a writer and that you can develop and improve. If you widely submit (but choose your appropriate level – a local competition as a beginner or something more prestigious later on) then you can gain feedback and – sometimes – validation and success.

Classes and Mentorship

It can be daunting to take a class to improve your skills. You may have so much self-doubt that you won’t even apply for a mentorship scheme but classes and mentorships are ways you have to develop and improve your skills to improve your self-confidence. Be realistic about skills you may lack and take steps to address these. A proactive and problem-solving approach engenders an energetic feeling of efficacy and competence. Classes and mentorship will also identify your particular strengths at this point in time. This brings us full circle. Make the most of what you’ve got, shine within your own sphere, if your background and interests are confined it means they can be highly specialised but if you want to broaden your scope, take steps to do so. Instead of self-doubt, revel in the self’s unique perspective.

In summary, don’t let self-doubt become a miasma that clouds your thinking and impedes your progress. Make a clear path through identifying your reason, passions. Inform yourself by noting what you have in your backpack (or baggage!). Plan your route, set your goals, review your progress and get help and fuel along the way in the form of mentors or other inspiration (more on that in future). These practical and value-driven methods will align your purpose and progression and help you put your self-doubt to one side.

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